There are no benign conflicts of interest

Back in January I wrote about the problem of conflicted advice, and the solution:

"Your stockbroker, your insurance agent, and your affiliate blogger are all required to disclose their conflicts of interest, and do so dutifully. The problem is that disclosure of conflicts of interest does not have any impact on the quality of the advice provided, and may perversely lead you to trust the conflicted party more, not less.

"Let me be clear: the logical response to "I may be compensated based on your choice of mutual fund/insurance product/credit card" is not to discount the advice given by 10%, or 20%, or 50%.

"The logical response is to discount the advice given by 100%."

Yesterday a remarkable article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel crossed my Twitter feed (via @MilesperDay). The following passage startled many people

"Trusted websites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and others have strict policies limiting what is allowed to be included in online customer reviews.

"So while readers might learn that a resort's seafood isn’t fresh and the beds are too hard, they won’t typically hear that guests were assaulted on the property or that they believed a bartender slipped something in their drinks.

"When guests interviewed by the Journal Sentinel tried to describe what happened on those sites, they said their comments were rejected."

There's no mystery what's going on here. Websites which receive their income from hotel reservations booked through the site are not in the business of providing a clearinghouse for user reviews of their hotel stays. They allow users to submit reviews as an ancillary source of content for their actual business: selling hotel rooms.

Reviews, even negative reviews ("beds are too hard"), are no threat to the underlying business since someone booking away from a negatively-reviewed property towards a positively-reviewed property still generates referral commissions.

The reviews that pose a threat to the business are those which cause someone to decide not to travel to Cancun at all because people are being drugged and raped in Cancun.

This is a useful example of the aphorism from my post in January: if you are not the customer, you're the product.

There are no benign conflicts of interest

At this point the analogy between credit card affiliate bloggers and hotel booking sites is hopefully obvious: unless special bounties are being offered for certain credit cards, it is much less important to your affiliate blogger which credit card you get than the fact you get credit cards — as many as possible as often as possible. The only advice you'll never hear is "the only credit card most people should carry is a no-annual-fee, no-foreign-transaction-fee, chip-and-PIN cash back card."

In other words, the conflict of interest between credit cards that pay affiliate commissions and those that don't is a relatively minor subset of the vast conflict of interest inherent in selling credit cards for a living: the preference for credit cards over not credit cards, just like Expedia's conflicted preference for travel over not travel.

I'm conflicted too — proceed accordingly!

While I may come across as some kind of fire-and-brimstone frontier preacher, every single thing I've said applies in full to my own blogs. This is a for-profit enterprise, after all! If you're reading this in a browser, you can see up top I have a disclosure:

"Disclosure: to the best of my knowledge, the only remuneration I receive for any of the content on this site is through my personal referral links, my Amazon Associates referral link, the Google Adsense ads found in the righthand sidebar, and my blog subscribers, who also receive my occasional subscribers-only newsletter. You can find all my personal referral links on my Support the Site! page."

As you can see, I'm hopelessly conflicted. I have personal credit card referral links, and while it's true that means I can only refer people to credit cards I actually carry, it also means I will benefit personally if my blog convinces readers to apply for an American Express Hilton Surpass card or Delta SkyMiles Business card (the only referral links I currently have available). Proceed accordingly!

I also have Amazon Associates links, so if I write about a book or object (since Amazon sells everything) I benefit if readers use my links to buy the thing. I don't provide Amazon Associates links to specific products, but it's still a conflict if I benefit from my readers' actions. Proceed accordingly!

I also have Google Adsense ads, and (I assume) writing about certain products or services changes the ads that appear there. So if I knew that a certain kind of ad paid especially well, I could write about that topic and try to bump my ad revenue in that way. In other words, I'd be writing for the Adsense engine, not for the benefit of readers. Proceed accordingly!

And of course the overwhelming majority of my income comes from blog subscribers, who also receive my periodic subscribers-only newsletters. That gives me an incentive to hold back content for newsletters, and it influences what I write about since I benefit when additional people become blog subscribers. Proceed accordingly!


Conflicts of interest, as I hope I've made clear, aren't inherently good or bad. The fact that my Adsense revenue increases when my writing attracts more readers may make me a better writer who writes on more timely or interesting topics, for instance, or it may cause me to write about topics which generate more lucrative ads. The same conflict, in other words, can have different outcomes.

But while disclosing conflicts of interest is an important legal requirement, and identifying conflicts of interest where not disclosed (like Expedia's preference for travel over not travel) is a critical task, both will prove pointless unless you take the additional step of synthesizing the content, conflicts and all, in order to reach decisions which, ultimately, you alone will benefit or suffer from.